Monday, February 19, 2024

2.18.24, "Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down" - Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, CA

 Genesis 9.8-17; 1 Peter 3.18-22

Good Morning and God’s Peace.


Welcome to the First Sunday of Lent … 


It began on Wednesday, Ash Wednesday!


Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.


here’s who I am, 

this is my life, 

here’s where it begins … here’s where it’ll end …


 and in between … a life - a life to live.


take hands with a neighbor, lift up the fallen, 

offer kindness and grace, go to bat for each other, 

speak truth to power, 

live in faith, hope, and love.

Ask plenty of questions.

Never be afraid of doubt.

Laugh when you can; cry when you must.

And never, ever, be afraid of love … it will take you to good places, even dangerous places, places where Christ lives.


Ash Wednesday … ashes to ashes, we all fall down.


Reality #1, we’re mortal to the core … 


When we’re young, life stretches out ahead as if it were forever … and then some time in our late 30s, early 40s, we begin to hear the clock tick … 

calendar pages pick up speed … 

time hastens on … 

we look at retirement and sign up for medicare.

insurance companies pester us to take care of our loved ones. and - “make those final arrangements” … 


Mortality… we don’t have to dwell on it, but maturity of character requires our awareness of it … honesty demands it … life needs it.


To help us value what’s important, straighten out our priorities … keep little things in check, so we can focus on the really big things, the things that count!


When Sally died, her children and grandchildren took up the task of disposing of her belongings … a house full of old furniture and nicknacks, doilies and books … in the attic, several large boxes, full of china - every piece carefully wrapped and tucked away - beautiful, expensive, china … apparently never used.


One of the grandchildren asked, “Why was this never used? What is it for? I never saw any of this on her table.”


One of the other children said, “She began collecting this as a young lady, and then throughout the years, kept adding to the collection … I think she was saving it for some special occasion.”


A special occasion that never came!


Ashes to ashes, we all fall down.


Reality #2 … sin … now that’s a word to get everyone excited … am I right???


Sin is a part of the story … tragedy, cruelty, selfishness, all curled up tight in our souls.


Sinners we are.


Has the church made too much of sin? I believe so … 

Some parts of the Christian church have devoted way too much time to sin.


Sin is fun to preach … damning a few souls to hell before breakfast has been the stock in trade for many a priest and preacher … whoopee doopee ding dang.


But ignoring sin doesn’t help either … we all know something about the darker side of life, for ourselves, for others … sin is a part of our reality.


Jesus said to the mob ready to stone a woman to death, Let the one without sin throw the first stone. 


I don’t know what sin is, exactly … but I know what it looks like:


A tree shattered by lightening … 


Life shattered, life torn apart, life broken … 


families torn apart … 

nations pitted against one another …

the soul at war with itself …

broken, bent, twisted and torn. 


Ashes to ashes, we all fall down.


Ash Wednesday helps us say the simple, but important words, “I’m sorry … 


I’m sorry for what I have done, for what I have said … I’m sorry for what I could’ve done, and didn’t … I’m sorry for what I should’ve said, but chose silence instead.


The road to life requires reality … 

We are mortal creatures, with only so much time.

We are sinners, always in the need of grace.


All religions deal with this … one way or the other … here we are, in this Christian place, a Presbyterian Church, and here’s a place, as good as any, and far better than some, to grow into the goodness and promise of life … to embrace our realities, understand their importance … the stuff of maturity.


And what is maturity? Mindful of the realities that hurt and harm, we set our minds upon the greater realities of goodness and mercy. 


Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way:


“To laugh often and much;

To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;

To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; 

To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; 

To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; 

To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.

This is to have succeeded.”


Ash Wednesday - behind us - ahead of us now, the Lenten Road.


Come, and follow me says Jesus, one step at a time … on the Road to Jerusalem, 

to the heart of the matter, 

to confront the demonic powers … 

religion upside down, government harsh and cruel … 

religious leaders long on law and short on love … 

political leaders who know only the sword and the spear … 

and the people, always the people - who get lost in the shuffle, shoved to the side, ignored and even despised … the widow, the orphan, the stranger at the gate … so many who have no voice, but heaven hears their cry.


There is work to be done …


The immediate story ends on Good Friday … a crown of thorns, nails pounded into flesh and bone, a spear thrust into the ribs … three men executed that day, as enemies of the state … but God is the God of the Second Chance, the third and the fourth chance, the fifth and sixth, an infinite number of chances, moments, rewrites on the script, start-overs, mulligans on the golf course, and new days before us.


What looked like the end, wasn’t the end at all … there is always Easter … and a stone rolled away.


The gospel goes forth:


be not afraid … 

you are mortal … God’s love is eternal.

you are a sinner … God is merciful.

walk the Lenten Road … 

you’re with the LORD, and the LORD is with you.


Ashes to ashes, we all fall down … and the hand of Christ lifts us up to a better day … 


Dear friends,


Look for the sunshine behind the clouds.

Take note of a child’s smile.

Listen to the parrots squawking and screeching their way across the morning sky.

Remember your friends.

Give special attention to those who are hurting.

Be mindful of your loved ones, and tell them every day you love them.

Buy a new cookbook.

Take some art lessons.

Celebrate your goodness; appreciate your gifts.

Pay attention to the world, the good, the bad, and the ugly … stay the course: love God for all your worth, and for all your worth, love your neighbor!


It is the Lenten Road we travel …  

It is the Way of Christ we follow …


Hallelujah and Amen!







Sunday, February 4, 2024

2.4.24, "Fly, Run, Walk" - Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, CA

 Isaiah 40:21-31; Mark 1:29-39


Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.


Some of the most eloquent words of hope and assurance ever written ... 


To comfort and console: 


Fly as high as you can, run your very best, and if you can only walk, then walk … 


And I will add: if you can only crawl, then crawl … and if you can’t take one more step, than stand still, sit down, lay down … the LORD is there, too … 


In the bright light of a good day, in the dreary shadows of loss and defeat … no matter the hour, no matter the moment, the LORD of time is there … the LORD of life and the LORD of death, all around the turn of the clock and whatever the time may be … I will never leave you nor forsake you …


You’ve heard me say it before: the Bible is a trustworthy book because it was written by folks on the hard edge of history, a time of terror and loss … war and pestilence … political chaos and military defeat.


These gifted writers, philosophers, prophets and priests, farmers and shepherds; the high and the mighty, the low and the meek … worked overtime to figure things out … 


To put together a way of life when all the usual elements of life have been stripped away … their words are written with sweat, blood, and tears … anguished prayer, cries of lament … fatigue and frustration … far away from home in the distant lands of exile.


There are no accusations, no demands. The only expectation is that one does not relinquish hope.


How in the world do they do it?

How do they still talk about the faithfulness of God?

When God’s faithfulness is not evident?


But they do … and that has inspired the world … 


Millions of believers and non-believers, folks from every persuasion and faith, have found inspiration in these ancient words … the power to persevere … to stay the course, to love and hope and dream, and not give up.


Even when God:

Is hidden from our eyes, intangible and silent ... 

Always the question: Where is God? 


God is present … in ways mostly beyond our immediate perception.


Perhaps only in retrospect … 

Looking back in time, we might be able to say:


It was you, wasn’t it? All along the way, it was you!


Your hand upon me in the valley of the Shadow of Death ... 


Your silent presence of love opened a door I couldn't see until it was open ... 


Your Holy Spirit, your breath, the wind of creation, blowing where it will, gave me the opportunity I needed, the comfort for which I longed, the love I sought, the hope for which I reached …


it was you LORD, all along ... and I had to wait for you ... 


Those who wait for the LORD …


One of my favorite Bible stories - Moses … upon whose shoulders rested the future of a people ... a troubled people, on their way from bondage to freedom, from death to life, from nothing to something, from despair to hope ... 

I want to know more about you, says Moses to God, so I can tell the people who it is who's called me to this task ... 


God says, I am with you. 


Moses says, that's not enough. 


OK, says God, here's the deal. I'm going to put you into this cleft in the rock, and when I come toward you, I'll put my hand over the cleft, and you won't see me coming toward you, but only after I pass, I'll remove my hand, and then you'll see my backside.


God puts a hand over our eyes, in terms of the future ... 

it's best that way … 


if we could see what God was going to do, we'd rush in and add our two cent's worth ... 

we'd offer suggestions, ideas, criticisms, excuses, and advice ... 

in other words, we'd muddle it up!


So God obscures the work … for the time being, all we have is a promise, I am with you ... 


The promise echoed by Christ to the disciples at the end of Matthew’s gospel … I am with you always, to the end of the age.


Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.


Encouragement to stay the course, to not give up … to hope, and to love … to pray and to care … to practice the fine arts of mercy and compassion … to pursue knowledge and wisdom … to explore the interior contours of our soul and mind … to pay attention to the world around us …

Remember dear friends: A winner is only a loser who tried one more time! 


The bowler, the dancer … the engineer, the philosopher … the carpenter with a hammer, the housekeeper with a broom …


From the greatest of our leaders, to anyone of us, the power of perseverance … 


Perhaps old dogs can’t learn a new trick, but people can - we have an incredible breadth of mind and heart, to keep on learning, growing, developing, moving … if not with our flesh and bones because they’ve grown weak, then in the spirit; if not literally with our bodies, then in our imagination. At work, at home, at play … in the darkest of nights, in the brightest of days, God with us … in all times and places … this is my Father’s world …


Dr. Henry Bast, who taught preaching for years at Western Theological Seminary, said near the end of his life:


In these troubled days when men’s hearts fail them for fear, when nation rises against nation, when violence and conflict increases within our own nation, we need to remember that the living God is on the throne. He has not abdicated. 


I learned this lesson well when I was a seminary student, says Dr. Bast, in the days of the great depression. The year that I graduated the banks were closed. I had hoped to do graduate work, but all scholarships were wiped out. It was doubtful whether many of us would even get a church to preach in. 


About that time a man moved into town who started a new restaurant with simple food, simple furnishings, and low prices. The students flocked there. It was about the only place we could afford to eat, but what impresses me most now about those days is the cash register. Just above the line that registered the cash sales, there was a cardboard sign, “God is still on the throne.”


That simple statement of faith helped bring me through a very difficult time in my life, and in the lives of many others. 


To each of you this day, and from the Holy Spirit of God:

Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength!


Hallelujah and Amen!